Why you should travel to a town in Croatia you’ve never heard of.

OPATIJA, CROATIA  [ɔpǎtija // o-pot-ee-uh]

Opatija is a Croatian coastal town resting on the northeastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, and as pointed out in my last post, most people traveling to Croatia have never heard of it. They’ve heard of Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnik… but usually not Opatija.

However, this wasn’t always the case. The story behind Opatija is a checkered one, dating all the way back to pre-Roman times. But to avoid turning this post into a full-on history lesson, I’ll try to briefly cover the highlights of the town’s modern history, beginning in 1844.

Source: www.landscapenotes.com.
Out front of Villa Angiolina circa 1900. Source: http://www.landscapenotes.com.

At this time, Iginio Scarpa, a rich merchant from Rijeka (another town in Croatia not far east of Opatija), founded Villa Angiolina. Villa Angiolina is the building that really marked the beginning of tourism in Opatija. This building still stands in Opatija today, converted into a museum devoted to telling you the story I’m telling you now.

Villa Angiolina
The main entrance of Villa Angiolina. Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk.

Over time, the town became a fashionable spot for the Austrian imperial family and Austrian nobility. The first luxury hotel was built in 1884 and named Hotel Quarnero, but today stands as Grand Hotel Kvarner. Many more hotels and villas were soon built, and Opatija hit the height of tourism in 1889 when the Austrian government declared “Abbazia” (Opatija) the first climatic seaside resort on the Adriatic.

However, Opatija would change hands many times over the next century. It was assigned to Italy in 1920 with the advent of fascism, given over to Yugoslavia in 1947, and finally would fall into Croatia’s hands in 1991 with the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Since then, Opatija has been fairly quiet, operating to provide a peaceful getaway to tourists and Croatians on holiday alike.

Source: tours.adriaday.com.
The outside garden of Villa Angiolina. Source: http://www.tours.adriaday.com.

So then what makes Opatija special?

I traveled to a multiple towns and cities throughout Croatia during my stay there, and while each was unique and beautiful in its own right – and I’ll go into each of those in later posts – there was a certain air in Opatija that didn’t seem to be anywhere else. It was that certain air, a feeling, essentially, that made you feel like nothing bad could ever happen there.

It’s not an imitation of anything – like a Disney resort trying to lure you into feeling like you’re standing in Germany when you’re really in Florida – it’s authentic. It’s an arresting, tranquil place to forget about the worries on your mind. And it’s not flashy, like a five-star resort in Shanghai, but it will have everything you want and plenty more than you need.

I don’t think I’ve ever slept better than I did there, listening to the soothing sounds of the Adriatic and the gentle hum that the activity of people seem to make…


A small collection of moments from my time in Opatija.

If you decide to check Opatija out, here are the things you won’t want to miss:

Villa Angiolina
As mentioned earlier, it’s one of the most recognizable landmarks in the town, and the museum inside will be able to give a much more in-depth account than my brief post about the history of the town. ADDED BONUS: the park surrounding Villa Angiolina is a green thumb’s dream, boasting over 150 different plant species both native to the region and other parts of the world.

Source: www.endourology-today.com.
Maiden with the Seagull. Source: http://www.endourology-today.com.

Maiden with the Seagull
This statue has become one of the symbols of the town, and is recognizable across Croatia. It is, however, a new sculpture in comparison to others in Opatija. Maiden with the Seagull was erected in 1956 by the sculptor Zvonko Car. In its place once stood the Madonna del Mare, which was demolished by communists after the end of World War II.

Abbey of Saint James
This 14th-century Benedictine abbey, Opatija Sv. Jakova, or Abbey of Saint James, from which the town gets its name (“opatija means “abbey” in Croatian) can be found in Park Svetog Jakova or Saint James’s Park. Saint James’s Church, originally built in 1506, now stands in the same spot.

Casino Rosalia. Source: m.novilist.hr.
Casino Rosalia. Source: m.novilist.hr.

Casino Rosalia
A less common destination in the town, but fun if you’re looking for a little luck, is the Villa Rosalia, which today is known as Casino Rosalia. Originally constructed in 1896 as a luxurious villa for Austrian aristocracy, it was later credited as being the first casino in eastern Europe.

Seaside of Opatija
Last, and my personal favorite, part of Opatija you won’t want to miss is simply walking along the stone path that winds through the majority of the water’s edge of the town. There’ll be places to lay out in the sun as you pass, to climb rocks, to take the perfect snapshot, and to look at various street vendors’ art.

Source: www.schlosshotels.co.at.
Source: http://www.schlosshotels.co.at.

Me, snapping a photo while being snapped in Opatija in late May 2013.     Opatija

Left: Me snapping a photo while being snapped in Opatija near Hotel Kvarner.
Right: The garden in front of Villa Angiolina facing the Adriatic Sea.

Opatija, Croatia – A Hidden Gem

When most people think of a coastal town in Croatia, their first instinct is usually to name Split. And for a good reason – it’s the second largest city in Croatia and it’s full of beautiful sights, sounds, and smells, both outside and in its night clubs. However, a lesser known to travelers, but equally as beautiful, town on the coast is Opatija. Farther north than Split on the Adriatic, it rests at the foot of Učka mountain.

Now, when I arrived in Croatia on a delayed flight coming from a layover in Munich, I’m not going to lie, all I cared about was how exhausted I was. I had difficulty paying attention to what I was seeing in my tired haze, and all I really remember are the street lights. Myself and the group I was traveling with had landed in Zagreb, the capital, but we were staying in Opatija for the first two nights, which was about two hours west on the coast. Thankfully, I wasn’t the one making the drive in the middle of the night fresh off an international flight, so we rode on in the night as the majority of us slept.

Source: Google maps.
Source: Google maps.

I don’t even fully remember going to my room and plopping down on my bed, but I absolutely remember waking up. It was just before 8am and I slowly started to realize a few things all at once:

1. My body ached. It was sore as if I had worked out really hard the day before. What this really meant was that I wasn’t drinking enough water. Rookie mistake.

2. I could smell salt. Overwhelmingly so. The first peek of my eyes alerted me to the fact the hotel room window was open. We’re still not sure whether I or my roommate opened it.

3. I could hear waves. The kind of peaceful waves I imagine masseuses play in massage parlors, lulling you into a meditative state.

When the third realization really hit me, my eyes opened again. Waves? I hadn’t expected to be able to hear them so clearly. I had known Opatija was on the coast, but I hadn’t realized we were staying on the water. I darted out of bed and ran to the window, and that, my friends, is the moment I fell in love with this country.

At the window, I foolishly realized I had been too hasty. There’s a reason I wear contacts. Oh yeah, I had thought, I still can’t see. Everything in my line of sight at the window was blurry, a mixture of blues and greens and white. But for a moment it hadn’t mattered, the colors had blended together in such a way that I almost forgot my poor eyesight. And when I closed my eyes I could feel the wind, hear the waves and birds, smell the saltiness of the Adriatic, and I knew. I knew I loved Croatia.

I grabbed my iPhone off of the bedside table and snapped a picture right then and there, without actually knowing what I was taking a picture of. The result, as I saw later and you see now, was as breathtaking as I imagined it.

The view from my hotel room overlooking the Adriatic Sea.
The view from my hotel room overlooking the Adriatic Sea.

As quick as I could muster my protesting limbs to get ready, I was dressed for the day and down in the lobby, ready to explore.

In a second post coming tomorrow, I’ll detail some of the finer points of Opatija. Stay tuned!